Comment by S.Y. Shah
Director, International Institute of Adult &Lifelong Education, New Delhi, India
I enjoyed reading the article – Enhancing competencies in the Arab world: Issues to be considered written by Dr. Rabab Tamish. It was academically stimulating as it has raised very pertinent issues generally confronted by most of the adult educators working in developing countries. Drawing on her experiences of working in the field of adult education –specially training of adult educators, Tamish has not only highlighted the challenges of operationalization of progressive adult education approaches and global set of skills and competencies in the Arab region but also argued that without taking into consideration the socio political contexts, it may be difficult to implement them. Besides the adoption of narrow definition of adult education confining it to adult literacy-reading, writing and numeracy has greatly restricted the scope of activities in the Arab world. In the absence of professional institutions, there are not many adult educators in the Arab region having conceptual clarity and understanding of adult education. Since Arab region has several countries which are at different levels of development and modernization, Iam wondering whether the practice of adult education remains the same in all places. Are all Arab countries follow the narrow definition of adult education and confine their programmes to adult basic literacy? Did some of the countries take any initiative in moving from literacy to lifelong learning? What has been the role of UNESCO and impact of global consultations- especially EFA- on the formulation of adult education policies and programmes in the Arab region?
Since Tamish paper aroused my interest in knowing more about the adult education scenario in the Arab region, I referred to The state and development of adult learning and education in the Arab States: Regional synthesis report by Abdel Wahid Abdalla Yousif (2009)* which examines the literacy situation in 17 of the 21 countries in the Arab region. Although the Arab region is made up of 21 countries spread over the two continents of Asia and Africa and has a population of 320 million people, it is estimated that there are nearly 65 million illiterates. However, the literacy rates in the region vary from one country to another, ranging from below 60 per cent in Morocco, Egypt, Mauritania and Sudan to above 90 percent in Kuwait and Palestine and above 95 per cent in Bahrain. The report observes that:
the literacy and adult education programme in the vast majority of countries is under resourced, with little professional organisation and management, and limited vision and knowledge of how to bring about a substantial improvement in people’s lives…..There are many constraints, but the biggest hurdle is the under-estimation of the magnitude of the struggle to achieve literacy. That seems to be a general pattern in most of the countries of the region. There is also a lack of political will to match the challenges posed by globalisation and the needs of the knowledge economy. Despite all the constraints that have put literacy and adult education in a straight-jacket, all countries in the region endeavour to sponsor innovation and good practice, ranging from the use of ICTs in programme delivery (Sudan, Palestine and Egypt) to the design of model learning environments (Saudi Arabia and Oman) where illiteracy-free zones and the learning village models stand out as examples.
As mentioned in the Report, thousands of NGOs are involved in education in general, and literacy and adult education in particular, in Sudan. An important player is Sudan Learning Organisation, one of whose outstanding contributions is the “Building Literacy”- post-literacy project. Its main objective is to build literacy through discussion among learners and through writing of what they discuss. The key strengths of the project are its use of imaginative texts, its employment of well-trained facilitators, and its use of distance learning techniques. According to one source, a new participatory literacy paradigm has emerged in the NGO sector, which neither regards illiteracy as simply a deficit nor speaks of eradicating illiteracy. The acquisition and use of literacy is viewed as part of a long-term process in which a community or a society seeks to effect its own cultural and social transformation. Despite all the constraints that have put literacy and adult education in a straight-jacket, all countries in the region endeavour to sponsor innovation and good practice, ranging from the use of ICTs in programme delivery (Sudan, Palestine and Egypt) to the design of model learning environments (Saudi Arabia and Oman) where illiteracy-free zones and the learning village models stand out as examples. Tunisia’s literacy programme has enabled some learners to break through the poverty cycle through income-generating projects; another innovative project has secured the inclusion of a special supplement aimed at neo-literates in a weekly newspaper. There has also been the creation of clubs for self-teaching under the guidance of adult education societies.
Based on the review of the history of education over the last 50 years in the Arab region, the Synthesis Report reveals a deeply-rooted tradition of civil society organisation (CSO) involvement in literacy and adult education drawing inspiration from Islamic religion which encourages learning from cradle to grave and helping others learn. A wide spectrum of CSOs, including trade unions, professional associations, students’ unions, women’s groups and political parties are working independently or in partnership with government agencies. They also work closely with regional and international donors who seem to be attracted by their efficiency and sense of innovation and accountability. The contribution of CSOs to literacy and adult education is very wide indeed, ranging from the mobilisation of resources, to teaching and supervising classes, negotiating with donors, the training of instructors, and providing support to poor families. All the national reports assert the valuable and, to some, indispensable role of CSOs in helping programmes to achieve their objectives.
While there is no dearth of adult education programmes in the Arab region, their scope and impact has been very limited. Since several evaluation studies of adult education programmes conducted in different parts of the world have traced the ineffectiveness of adult education programme to inadequate and ill-conceived training of adult educators, the challenge is to develop professionally qualified and competent adult educators. Based on my experience of working in the field of training of adult educators, I have realized the importance of professionalization of adult education programme. The initiative needs to be taken by the civil society organizations and universities.
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